Are 'Court Costs' Just a Scam to Raise More Money for Government?

When you get a speeding ticket and have to pay 'court costs,' does what you pay really help fund the costs of the court, or are those fees just a scam for the county and state to pocket more money?

1200 WOAI news reports a little bit of both.

According to testimony before the State Senate State Affairs Committee, there are some 143 different court costs and civil court filing fees that are levied by the state's courts, and they bring in a total of $1.4 billion dollars annually.  About $400 million of that money goes to the state, and the rest goes to the counties.

David Slayton, who heads the State Office of Court Administration, says the Legislature over the years has reduced the leeway for court costs to go into other funds, but court costs still help fund, for example, the State Trauma Fund, which helps pay for hospital trauma centers and emergency rooms, and some of the money goes into the State Highway Fund.

Slayton warned that courts are looking into the legality of those uses of court costs, and are likely to rule that they are unconstitutional because they don't directly impact funding of the courts.

One place where the state has made progress, he said, is in making sure that defendants don't go to jail for failure to pay court costs.

"The law requires judges to evaluate a defendant's ability to pay, and come up with a plan that the defendant can pay, and be successful," he said.

He says in the past, when a person was unable to pay court costs, defendants would be arrested and thrown in jail, at an even greater cost to the taxpayer.

"Defendants would not pay that, they would instead default and be arrested, and just lay the time out in the county jail, and the county or the state would never collect the fine or court costs."

Slayton says court costs are more and more being assessed as community service time for indigent defendants.

State lawmakers more and more are trying to shy away from 'two tiered' systems of justice, where the wealthy can walk free with a shrug, while low income defendants face punishing fines or incarceration.

Slayton warned that courts are closing in on uses for court costs that have nothing to do with the operation of the court, pointing out that one judge voided the use of court costs for a non existant 'childen's mental health fund.'

IMAGE: GETTY

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